Monday, August 31, 2015

Singles Summary: August 2015

Justin Bieber // "What Do You Mean?"
TBA, Def Jam

Lana Del Rey // "High by the Beach" & "Terrence Loves You"
Honeymoon, Interscope
High by the Beach: ★★★★☆ // Terrence Loves You: ★★★★★

Calvin Harris & Disciples // "How Deep is Your Love"
TBA, Columbia

 Nick Jonas // "Levels"
TBA, Island

Charlie Puth // "One Call Away"
Nine Track Mind, Atlantic

Hailee Steinfeld // "Love Myself"
TBA, Republic

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Badlands | Halsey

Welcome to the inner workings of viral alt-pop phenomenon Halsey; welcome to the Badlands"There are some here I love, some who fear me, and some who wish I was dead. I didn’t ask for this. No one asks for this. You’re born into it. You grow up oblivious and sheltered, and one day the evil realities of this place hit you square between the eyes like a perfectly aimed bullet," she tells us in a trailer to her debut album, a follow-up to her Room 93 extended play. While Room 93 followed misfortunes and happenings in a hotel suite, this album is shaped from a brand new concept: it is an 11-track journey through Halsey's own dystopia - an evil, rundown area that metaphorically represents the depths of her own mind. The trailer's overdone monologue foreshadows the melodrama about to unfold as we venture through the dirty streets of the Badlands.

Argued to be a competing record label's manufactured counterpart to Interscope's Lana Del Rey, Halsey attempts to embody everything that rebellious outcasts are meant to be: she gets high on amphetamines, trips on LSD, writes stories in the fog of windows after fucking on a bathroom sink, has one-night stands, hopes to make it to age 28... the list goes on and on. A feisty little ball of vulnerability, angst, and rebellion, she is. A few times, I could grab her and tell her that enough is enough, that we completely get the wayward point she tries to drive home. But you know, in a world where the lyrics to some of our most popular songs right now read along the lines of "watch me whip, now watch me nae nae" and "I'm like, 'Hey, what's up? Hello.' / Seen your pretty ass soon as you came in the door," Halsey definitely isn't the worst lyricist on the block. In fact, her lyrics are so fluffed-up and pleasing to the ears that I am willing to excuse a majority of the clich├ęs weaved into them.

Lead single "Hold Me Down" features what are arguably the best lyrics of the album. Over the strangely-paced beat and gritty synths of the song, she sings, "My demons are begging me to open up my mouth / I need them, mechanically make the words come out / They fight me, vigorous and angry, watch them pounce / Ignite me, licking up the flame they bring about." When the fan-favorite selection "Colors" builds up to its billowing chorus, we hear Halsey poetically recite, "You're dripping like a saturated sunrise, you're spilling like an overflowing sink / You're ripped at every edge but you're a masterpiece, and now I'm tearing through the pages and the ink."  And as try-hard as the chorus of "New Americana" could be perceived (it's actually a satirical song, if you lot haven't looked into a few Halsey interviews), it offers some substance in its verses: "Young James Dean, some say he looks just like his father / But he could never love somebody's daughter / Football team, loved more than just the game / So he vowed to be his husband at the alter." Her lyrics are aesthetically pleasing, if nothing else, eh? There are nine other pretty songs, both with and without a few cringe-worthy themes, stocked on the album for your listening pleasure.

Brooding, intricate productions, enveloping choruses, and Halsey's semi-raspy vocals are the driving forces that keep the album alive; "Ghost" and "Hurricane," tracks that found their way over to Badlands from Room 93, should have been bellwethers of those facts a long time ago. She and her producers craft immersive atmospheres that wash over listeners like high tides over sandy beaches.  "Drive" is the musical equivalent to a lonely midnight drive out of the city, complete with car sound effects that are believable up until some tacky tire squeals. The same goes for "Coming Down," another song that is given automobile ambiance and carries a subtle acoustic touch without losing consistency with the rest of the tracks. "Haunting" and "Roman Holiday" are the best examples of skillful production to bring extraordinary life to her work. The former opens with a looped vocal pattern that runs throughout as the song slowly blossoms into a driving, hopeless plead, while the latter's layers of smoky vocals and heavy synthesizers emit the radiance of a warm summer day.

Admittedly, she does tap into the same "part-Tumblr aesthetic, part-dark alt-pop, part-mainstream success" role as Del Rey, but that's why this album works so well and is forecast to sell (and stream) upwards of 75,000 copies in the United States. As a girl who gained fame via YouTube cover videos and is only 20 years old, she knows what the kids are into on the Interweb. (Hell, I'm sure that she still is a kid listening to the newest in viral pop when not making tunes of her own.) Tumblr activists and young aspiring hipsters make for a dedicated cult following, but as a whole, they pick and choose who they latch onto very carefully. Halsey covered all the bases to ensure success, taking hints from Lana Del Rey's bad girl pout, Lorde's sophisticated teen shtick, Banks' gracefully-tongued tales of love and heartbreak, and Miley Cyrus' no-fucks-given attitude, to name a few. She doesn't show signs of one who was "raised on Biggie and Nirvana," but instead, she represents those who grew up with a wide array of solid pop and alt-pop music at their fingertips; she is a key player in a second-generation wave of Internet-era alt-pop phenomena. With her cross-breeding of so many influences, it's no wonder Badlands has attracted such a wide audience.

Despite a few laughable lyrical themes (whether meant to be ironic or not) and a strong reliance on her influences, Halsey delivers a likable debut album with some room to grow later. (Luckily, she saved some of her most underwhelming songs - "Strange Love" and "I Walk the Line," in particular - for a deluxe pressing of Badlands, making for a stronger standard album.) Understandably, some listeners may not be able to get over the fact that her influences are very close to being considered her contemporaries, but perhaps I don't have a problem with it due to the proximity of age and music tastes between Halsey and me; if I possessed the skill to produce my own music, I could imagine it to sound something like hers. Any and all complaints aside, the dense soundscapes and malleable vocals of Badlands have the undeniable power to transport a listener to a dreamy alternate universe, even if only for forty minutes.

Badlands will be released on August 28, 2015 under Astralwerks Records. Alongside a standard edition of the album, an exclusive deluxe edition be found at Target and an exclusive vinyl pressing can be found at Urban Outfitters.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Beauty Behind the Madness | The Weeknd

The mainstream crossover of Canadian singer-songwriter-producer The Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye) was one that nobody predicted, but one that we probably should have counted on a while ago. A chameleon of pop, R&B, and everything in between, the Weeknd has thrived on critical acclaim and viral success for years now, but it wasn't until last year that contemporary hit radio listeners got a taste of his butter-smooth vocals on "Love Me Harder," a collaboration with Ariana Grande. To continue radio dominance, he followed up with "Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)," "The Hills," and the number single "Can't Feel My Face," all of which come from his sophomore studio album, Beauty Behind the Madness.

"Earned It," one of his two contributions for the soundtrack companion to Fifty Shades of Grey that long outlived the hype for the movie itself, receives some minor intro and outro edits for its inclusion on this album, but it still seems slightly out of place. It's sexy, but in a different right than most of the other material here. Overt references to sex and drugs are the cornerstones of his lyricism - on "Tell Your Friends," he says upfront, "I'm that n****r with the hair singing 'bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill" - but "Earned It" is without. The Michael Jackson-evoking "Can't Feel My Face" is also a clear stab at the concealment of explicit themes in a radio-friendly packaging; the song's lyrics seem harmlessly confusing unless the listener knows the effects of cocaine.

Just like the Trilogy mixtape collection and debut album Kiss Land, Beauty Behind the Madness is packed end-to-end with smutty electro-PBR&B at its finest. Despite a few shake-ups of his signature style (see: "Can't Feel My Face" or the acoustic dedication "Shameless"), the Weeknd delivers as expected. Songs like "The Hills," on which the Weeknd half-moans about a haphazard relationship that thrives on lust instead of love before the song blooms into bass-filled chorus, and the glitched-out Labrinth collaboration "Loners," one of the livelier offerings in his discography, are exactly what the doctor ordered.  We get a handful of X-rated moments (in particular, I can side-eye "Often" and "The Hills"), but we also get a few dead-serious, emotionally-charged ones, as well. "In the Night" is a Max Martin-produced highlight that tells the chilling story of a woman who strips to numb the pain of her childhood molestation, and the fragile closing track "Angel" signifies the moment when it is time to break off a relationship for the greater good of both parties. (The latter's outro, which features an airy children's choir and Maty Noyes, is a must-hear.)

So, who better to call in for this whole hazy, sultry affair than Lana Del Rey? Her attitude is not stripped away on the slow-burning "Prisoner." She sings of the death of her soul in Hollywood and has a spoken word outro that is very much Lana: "I don't know. I get so wrapped up in a world where nothing's as it seems, and real life is stranger than my dreams." But who worse to reel in for a collaboration than Ed Sheeran? The apple of every soccer mom's eye, Sheeran seems like an unlikely candidate to be thrown on this album. His contribution to the album, "Dark Times," is much more an Ed Sheeran song than a Weeknd song; I really wish the boy would have left the acoustic guitar at home for this one.

As expected, Beauty Behind the Madness consists of alluring vocals and immersive alternative R&B productions, with a spritz of moments that make listeners ask themselves, "Was that borderline misogynistic or just unnecessarily raunchy?" His identity and vision have not been shaken by success; not even his collaborations with production giant Max Martin are without that unique touch. If the title were posed as a question, the album would be the answer: there is a hell of a lot of beauty that stems from the Weeknd's world of madness.

Beauty Behind the Madness will be released on August 28, 2015 under Republic Records and XO.

Monday, August 17, 2015

M3LL155X | FKA twigs

She may have released one of the best albums of last year, but FKA twigs didn't waste much time to embrace the success of LP1. After cryptic, sporadic releases of "Glass & Patron" and "Figure 8" this year, she now forges forward with M3LL155X, an audiovisual extended play that already shows unforeseeable growth and experimentation.

Production this time around backhands listeners with gloomy, jagged-edged digital hits, but it is equally as intricate as that on LP1; a new element jumps out each time I replay these five tracks. But it does not bury twigs' shrill voice, which can still ooze some smooth seduction even underneath various electronic filters used on most of these tracks. The two must-hear tracks of the extended play, "In Time" and "Mothercreep," impress with mesmerizing production and vocal acrobatics. "In Time" may be the most striking departure from her past work - her vocals are run through a freaky vocoder, and the soundscape behind her, though not unreasonably changed from her first two EPs and debut LP, sits in the intersection of Kimbra's The Golden Echo, Purity Ring's Shrines, and Grimes' Visions. Meanwhile, "Mothercreep" borrows a melody very similar to twigs' own "Hide" and places it over progressively chaotic instrumentation - definitely worth a listen.

"Glass & Patron," a track released in March as part of the YouTube Music Awards, alternates fragility and fierceness - a borderline that twigs has traveled along since the beginning. "So do you have a lighter? / Am I dancing sexy yet? / I can't wait to make your body my own," she sings before a dark chorus possesses her: "1, 2, 3, now hold that pose for me." (Don't worry - in case you're wondering or haven't been able to tell by now, her lyrics are still ultra erotic.) And speaking of things of a sexual nature, we come to "I'm Your Doll." In the extended play's visual companion, her head is planted atop an inflatable sex doll for this gritty number that explores the dominance of a male's lust and the disposable use of a female's body. She may waft through the lyrics with breathy delivery, but it's all fun and games only until you read into the lyrics.

With twigs' standards set so high based by just debut album, I was interested to see where she could take her next release. So, overall, where did she take her sound? Darker, grittier, and weirder - all qualities that contrast the delicate voice that commands the vision and ties everything together. It's an unhinging affair that makes twigs' recent vogue dance influences clear. ("In Time" makes for a hell of a dance routine for twigs in the video.) Moving away from tranquility and onto harshness, M3LL155X is an ever-so-slight change for twigs - and it's unbelievably refreshing. My only massive complaint? The fact that the set is not titled EP3.

M3LL155X is out now under Young Turks.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Cry Baby | Melanie Martinez

The last moments of Melanie Martinez's debut album are filled with echoes of "So what if I'm crazy? All the best people are. The best people are crazy, the best people are..." What a way to end a record that spends 13 tracks convincing listeners that the singer-songwriter - or her alter ego - is one of the most creative of those "best people."

A concept album that blends reality and fantasy, Cry Baby integrates an entire storyboard of a young alter ego of the same name - the same emotional little girl introduced to us over year ago on Martinez's debut single, "Dollhouse." She's the daughter of an alcoholic mother and unfaithful father, and the sister of a pothead teenage brother. Martinez is formally paralleled to the character on the album's opening title track, a twisted meeting point of trip-hop and childish little clinks on which she pouts, "They call me cry baby, cry baby, but I don't fucking care." An accompanying album booklet ties each song into a children's book about the life, love, heartbreak, and revenge of Cry Baby; the book is key to understanding back-to-back tracks "Tag, You're It" and "Milk & Cookies." On the former, our heroine tells the story of her kidnapping by a wolf that eerily parallels a horrific rape ("Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a lady by her toes / If she squeals, don't let her go [...] Running through the parking lot, he chased and he wouldn't stop / Tag, you're it"). Then, she scripts a homicide threat for her kidnapper with the (ab)use of nursery rhymes on "Milk & Cookies," as if she is Natalie Maines and the wolf is named Earl.

The use of immature themes to convey harsh realities leads to an album that is lyrically solid and fresh. Take the twisted perspective on a classic toy to make a statement on society's superficial focus ("Don't be dramatic, it's only some plastic / No one will love you if you're unattractive / Oh Mrs. Potato Head tell me, is it true that pain is beauty? / Does a new face come with a warranty? / Will a new face make it better?") on the must-hear "Mrs. Potato Head," or the babbles, toy piano clicks, and double-sided phrases that camouflage an unhappy relationship with a know-it-all ("I know my ABCs, yet you keep teaching me / I say fuck your degree, alphabet boy / You think you're smarter than me with all your bad poetry?") on "Alphabet Boy." She also pays homage to the ultimate anthem of immaturity, Lesley Gore's "It's My Party," on her own "Pity Party." Borrowing Gore's hook, Martinez's track is an explosive temper-tantrum that resorts to bigger consequences than just crying at her party for one: "I'll cry until the candles burn down this place / I'll cry until my pity party's in flames."

The demented, childlike influences are not limited to lyrics and imagery, but also carry over to production and vocal delivery as a complete commitment to Cry Baby's persona. (For the best comparison, may I say that Martinez is to Cry Baby as Marina and the Diamonds is to Electra Heart?) Sometimes, these influences come off as cutesy, such as the ill-fitting popping bubbles that are used as the main element of the drop in "Soap," but more often than not, they just throw Martinez's music into a psychotic state. "Carousel" was the go-to song for FX's American Horror Story: Freak Show promo clips, and for good reason: she only had to add some trip-hop beats and little Lolita vocals to a familiar carnival tune to create a spooky soundscape. "Mad Hatter" follows the same sinister guidelines as she claims insanity over an industrial instrumental from a haunted house soundtrack gone awry. (Her doe-eyed appearance only amp up the creepiness of her music and video ideas, too. For a case in point, check out the accompanying clip to the immersive "Sippy Cup.")

Martinez isn't the first and won't be the last to play the surreal 'deranged child' card, but she pulls it off with consistent authenticity. The concept is stretched just short of becoming redundant, the production accents current trip-hop-meets-pop trends with a strong touch of childish sparkle, and the vocals, while limited and filtered for effect in many areas, are sufficient. Separation from the Cry Baby character could be a challenge for Martinez in her next album cycle, especially because the lyrics and themes of this record are really what make her stick out from the crowd, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, let's embrace the success of her debut. So what if introducing an alter ego and letting it loose across an entire album so early in her career was crazy? All the best ideas are.

Cry Baby will be available on August 14, 2015 under Atlantic Recordings. Standard and deluxe editions will be available.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

MTrain Tour | Meghan Trainor with Life of Dillon & Charlie Puth

"Ohio, I heard if you say a certain phrase... O-H?" asked 21-year-old singer-songwriter Meghan Trainor, who was amazed by her sold-out crowd of over 10,000 fans in the Ohio State Fairgrounds' Celeste Center. "I-O," the audience shouted in reply. "That is sick," she laughed. 

Her audience of fervent Ohioans wasn't much different from those of most female pop powerhouses: tons of children in homemade t-shirts with their parents, teenage girls and young women who pulled their boyfriends by their hair into the venue, drunken middle-aged women who get down to every song, and - my demographic - gay men. And like most pop stars, Trainor's fans are intense. They paid modest attention to opener Life of Dillon and unsurprisingly offered a warm welcome to Charlie Puth (of "See You Again" fame), but they really let loose for Trainor as she entered the stage for "Dear Future Husband." She led sing-a-longs for portions of nearly every upbeat song, and her fans knew every single phrase they were expected to sing - even for filler tracks that were only included on the deluxe pressing of Title, like "No Good For You" and "Mr. Almost."

Perhaps one thing that Trainor didn't gauge is her dense population of young fans. I saw parents' eyes widen as she sang, "We all make mistakes in the drunk world / Everyone here's done the walk of shame," to her audience that was composed hugely of children under 12 years old. The most awkward moment arrived when Charlie Puth returned to the stage to duet on "Marvin Gaye." Many kids - my young sister included - looked in the opposite direction when Trainor and Puth wailed, "Let's Marvin Gaye and get it on," in front of the giant electronic backdrop that played clips of couples following the lyrics' instructions.

Any uncomfortable moments were quickly glossed over with Trainor's pitch-perfect vocals, bubbly stage presence, and carefree catalog, though. The innocence that those parents expected shined through on new tracks "Good to Be Alive" and "Feels Better When I'm Dancing." The latter track pulled her from her '50s doo-wop safety zone into steel drum-fueled, summery territory with ample dance breaks. And for any of those who doubted her core musical ability, she wowed the crowd with a performance of "Like I'm Going to Lose You" and pulled out her trusty ukulele twice during the show for stripped renditions of "Title" and a mash-up of her own "3am" and Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours." Last month's vocal cord hemorrhage didn't set her back one bit; her vocals still gleamed.

Spare a few inappropriately-placed shouts of "hey" and "c'mon," she never missed a beat for the 90 minutes she was on stage. She proved entertaining for die-hard fans and casual listeners alike; even the unhappy young man who sat in front of me, presumably forced to be there by his parents who were having a grand ole time, found moments of interest in her biggest hits, "Lips are Movin'" and "All About That Bass." At a ticket price of roughly $35 each (which included fair admission for the day, as well), the MTrain Tour offered a lot of bang for the buck. Thinking about catching another stop on the tour? Do it; it's worth it. Hop aboard and enjoy the ride.

The MTrain Tour runs through September 13, 2015 and will make stops at multiple state fairs. Tickets for remaining dates can be found on Ticketmaster.

EDIT: Unfortunately, Trainor hemorrhaged her vocal cord once again after a bronchitis infection and announced on August 11 that the MTrain Tour must come to a halt. It is unknown if remaining dates will be rescheduled.